As tensions simmer in the Pacific between the United States and China, the two rivals are publicly trading barbs over their respective military conduct at sea.

On Sunday, the Department of Defense released photos of an encounter between Chinese navy ships near the Aleutian Islands off Alaska and two U.S. Coast Guard Cutters — including the Hawaii-based Kimball. A military press release, which has since been taken down from military websites, described the interaction as “safe and professional with verbal communications.”

The photos were released after the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper Global Times said on Wednesday that Americans should expect to see Chinese ships sailing near Hawaii and Guam after a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near a disputed reef in the South China Sea that the Chinese military has turned into a base.

On Sunday the Department of Defense released photos taken by U.S. Coast Guardsmen of Chinese Navy warships sailing in the Pacific near the Aleutian Islands in late August. Courtesy: Department of Defense/2021

The Global Times, which publishes in Chinese and English, is widely seen as a platform for the Chinese military establishment. “Hopefully when Chinese warships pass through the Caribbean Sea or show up near Hawaii and Guam one day, the U.S. will uphold the same standard of freedom of navigation,” Global Times top editor Hu Xijin tweeted. “That day will come soon.”

Chinese navy ships previously have sailed in Hawaii’s waters as invited guests for the Oahu-based U.S. Pacific Fleet’s biannual exercise Rim of the Pacific, most recently in 2016. In 2014 and 2016 the Chinese navy also sent spy ships to watch RIMPAC from a distance, though U.S. officials said that Beijing was well within its rights to do so.

But relations have soured, and in 2018 the U.S. disinvited China’s navy from the exercise. The Global Times criticized the U.S. Navy for holding RIMPAC last summer, publishing articles in English that highlighted local opposition and played up fears the exercise would lead to a major Covid-19 outbreak in Honolulu.

The U.S. Navy responded to Hu with a tweet asserting that it “has upheld the standards of freedom of navigation longer than the PLA (China’s) navy has existed” and pointed out that Chinese spy ships have already sailed near Hawaii and a Chinese aircraft carrier sailed freely between Guam and Taiwan in 2019.

Chinese ships aren’t the only ones moving close to Hawaii and Guam. Russian ships also have regularly operated near Hawaii, in particular spy ships keeping tabs on maneuvers during RIMPAC.

Earlier this year a Russian spy ship lingered near Kauai during scheduled training at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility, and in June the Russian navy held its largest exercise in the Pacific since the Cold War just off Hawaii, leading American jets to scramble in response to Russian bombers flying close to the islands.

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